Oh, no! Not another American war against evil!
This time, it’s the Islamic State (IS). After the attacks in Paris, Barack Obama, spokesman-in-chief for the United States of America, called that crew “the face of evil.” Shades of George W. Bush. The “evildoers” are back. And from every mountaintop, it seems, America now rings with calls to ramp up its war machine.
By the way, George W., how did that last war against the “evildoers” work out for you? Not quite the way you expected, right? I bet you didn’t imagine that your Global War on Terror would plant the seeds of an Islamic State and turn significant stretches of Iraq (and Syria) into fertile soil in which IS would grow into a brand new, even more frightening enemy.
But that’s the way wars against evil always seem to work.
Pardon me if I vent my exasperation with all the Washington policymakers, past and present, surrounded by their so-called experts and those war-drum-beating pundits in the media. I know I shouldn’t be shocked anymore. I’ve seen it often enough as a historian studying wars against evil in the past — ever since biblical times, in fact — and as a citizen watching wars in my own lifetime, ever since the one that tore Vietnam (and, incidentally, America) apart.
Still, it drives me crazy to watch policymakers and experts making the same dumb mistakes time after time, several mistakes, actually, which synergistically add up to one self-defeating blunder after another.
What’s worse, the dominant trend in public opinion is so often on the side of just those mistakes. You’d think someone would learn something. And in that someone I include “we, the people,” the nation as a whole.
Yet now, facing the Islamic State, you guessed it: we’re doing it all over again.
Let me try to lay out our repetitive mistakes, all six of them, one by one, starting with…
Mistake Number One: Treating the enemy as absolute evil, not even human.
Barack Obama called the Paris tragedy “an attack on all of humanity,” which means that, even for the president, IS fighters stand outside that category. They are evidently some other species and merely appear to be human. And this was the mildest of descriptions in this overheated political season of ours. “The face of evil” sounds modest indeed compared to the vivid images offered by the Republicans vying to replace him. For Ben Carson, IS are a bunch of “rabid dogs”; for Ted Cruz, “scorpions.” Donald Trump calls them “insane,” “animals.”
All point to the same dangerous conclusion: Since we are human and they are not, we are their opposite in every way. If they are absolute evil, we must be the absolute opposite. It’s the old apocalyptic tale: God’s people versus Satan’s. It ensures that we never have to admit to any meaningful connection with the enemy. By this logic, it couldn’t be more obvious that the nation our leaders endlessly call “exceptional” and “indispensable,” the only nation capable of leading the rest of the world in the war against evil, bears no relationship to that evil.
That leads to…
Mistake Number Two: Buried in the assumption that the enemy is not in any sense human like us is absolution for whatever hand we may have had in sparking or contributing to evil’s rise and spread. How could we have fertilized the soil of absolute evil or bear any responsibility for its successes? It’s a basic postulate of wars against evil: God’s people must be innocent.
As a result, we don’t need to look at all the ways in which the U.S., even in battle mode, continues to contribute to the successes of Islamic State fighters in Sunni Arab lands by, for instance, supporting an Iraqi Shi’ite regime in Baghdad that has a grim history of oppressing Sunnis, a history that drives many of them to tolerate, or even actively support IS.
By refusing a future role of any sort for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, we have hindered the diplomatic process that might heal the civil war in that country. Instead we let the Syrian chaos continue as a breeding ground for IS expansion (though perhaps this policy is just beginning to change). Our long-term alliance with Saudi Arabia is equally counterproductive, protecting funding networks that feed a burgeoning caliphate.
Just as we don’t look at all this in the present, so we blind ourselves to what the U.S. has done in the past. Consider this…
Mistake Number Three: Call it blotting out history. We lose the ability to really understand the enemy because we ignore the actual history of how that enemy came to be, of how a network of relationships grew up in which we played, and continue to play, a central role.
The historical record is clear for all who care to look: The U.S. (the CIA in particular) was a key to the creation, funding, and arming of the mujahidin, the rebel fighters in Afghanistan who took on the Soviet army there in the 1980s, the men (often extreme Islamists) whom President Ronald Reagan compared to our founding fathers. From that situation came al-Qaeda.
George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq cracked the region open and paved the way for the Islamic State. The Bush administration tore Iraq to shreds and then demobilized Saddam Hussein’s army and dispatched its members to the unemployment lines of a wrecked country.
One of those shreds, al-Qaeda in Iraq, populated by disaffected officers from that disbanded army, would later transform itself into the nucleus of the new Islamic State movement. Indeed the U.S. nurtured the present leadership of that movement in American military prisons in Iraq, where we introduced them to each other, so to speak. The process was at least hastened, and perhaps ultimately caused, by the vehement anti-Sunni bias of the Shi’ite Iraqi government, which the U.S. installed in power and also nurtured.
To sustain our image of ourselves as innocents in the whole affair, we have to blot out this empirical history and replace it with a myth (not so surprising, given that any war against evil is a mythic enterprise). That’s not to say that we deny all the facts. We just pick and choose the ones that fit our myth best.
In that tale, the enemy is simply what Christians for centuries have called the devil, which brings us to…
Mistake Number Four: We assume that the enemy, like Lucifer himself, does evil just for the sake of doing it. Even the most liberal parts of the media often can’t see IS fighters as more than “lunatics” bent on “slaughter for its own sake.”
Under such circumstances, what a foolish task it obviously is even to think about the enemy’s actual motives. After all, to do so would be to treat them as humans, with human purposes arising out of history. It would smack of sympathy for the devil.
Of course, this means that, whatever we might think of their actions, we generally ignore a wealth of evidence that the Islamic State’s fighters couldn’t be more human or have more comprehensible motivations. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find evidence of just that.
The Atlantic, for instance, gained some attention for publishing an article by Graeme Wood that explored the complex religious ideas of the IS movement. In the New York Review of Books, Scott Atran and Nafes Hamid offered insights from people who had taken the time to actually talk with IS fighters or former fighters about its strategy and their own motives in becoming part of it. In this manner, Atran and Hamid helped explain the great mystery of IS (if you believe it is an inhuman organization): How can it attract so many young followers, especially from the U.S. and Europe? Why do some disaffected young men and women find the movement “profoundly alluring”?
Olivier Roy, a leading scholar of political Islam, has answered that many of these youth, full of “frustration and resentment against society,” are lured by the fantasy of joining a “small brotherhood of super-heroes.” But a recent study by the Program in Extremism at George Washington University, full of rich details on American IS supporters, concluded that “their motivations are diverse and defy easy analysis.”
Add up this sort of evidence and you’re likely to come to a startling and, in our present context, deeply unsettling conclusion. It’s not just that IS fighters are distinctly human, but that in some ways they are eerily like us. After all, we, too, have a military that uses an ideological narrative to recruit young people and prepare them to be willing to die for it. Our military, too, is savvy in using social media and various forms of advertising and publicity to deploy its narrative effectively. Like IS recruits, youngsters join our military for all sorts of reasons, but some because they are rootless, disaffected, and in search of a belief system, or at least an exciting adventure (even one that may put them in danger of losing their lives). And don’t forget that those young recruits, like the IS fighters, often have only the sketchiest grasp of what exactly they are signing up to die for or of the nature of the conflicts they may be involved in.
Our state ideology is, of course, secular. But most of us are certainly familiar personally (or at one remove) with American religious fundamentalists whose beliefs share much with the IS narrative. On both sides, people want to turn back the clock of history and live according to a sacred plan supposedly etched in stone many centuries ago.
There are, in fact, striking parallels — and I say this as a professor of religious studies — between the evangelical mood and methods of our fundamentalists and those of the Islamic State. Both agree that one must choose between God’s truth (derived from an ancient text) and the devil’s. Both offer the psycho-social comfort of a community supposedly living by immutable laws. Some of our fundamentalists, like the Christian Reconstructionists, would be happy to see this nation governed under religious law, as long as it’s their religion we’re talking about.
Whatever any of us think of our homegrown fundamentalists, we would hardly deny them their humanity, even if we often wonder what leads them to such (to many of us) strange beliefs. So here’s the question: Why shouldn’t we be just as curious about the believers of the Islamic State, even if they are our enemies?
Remember, to understand is not to justify. Quite the opposite, understanding often opens up ways of thinking more constructively and creatively about how to respond to such a challenge. It’s clear that Islamic State strategists understand American and European political cultures well indeed and, as they’ve repeatedly shown, they use that understanding to their grim advantage. They know just how to provoke us into anti-Muslim rhetoric and belligerent policies, which they find most useful to their project and their movement. Like classic judo warriors, they employ our immense strength remarkably effectively against us.
Every one of Washington’s words and acts of war, every ally like Great Britain that joins the bombing campaign against IS, only confirms the Islamic State’s message that Muslims are under attack by the West. All of it only plays into the IS’s own apocalyptic worldview. Every step in the process makes the IS more attractive to Muslims who feel oppressed and marginalized by the West. So think of every threat uttered in the presidential campaign here and every bomb now being dropped as yet more global recruitment posters arriving “like manna from heaven” for that movement. Each is an invitation to launch yet more Paris-style attacks.
Our blindness to them as human beings, and to all the ways we have influenced them, increases their power and undermines our power to shape the outcome of events in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East. Ironically, we accept this loss of power willingly, even eagerly, because it allows us to hold on to what seems to matter most to us: our vision of a war against inhuman evildoers, which brings us to…
Mistake Number Five: To convince ourselves that the Islamic State is evil incarnate, we imagine that the enemy is as relentless, intractable, and implacable as the devil himself. As a result, we also imagine that nothing we could do might diminish their will to evil. Since, as we see it, we had nothing to do with creating these monsters, no changes in our policies or actions could possibly influence their behavior. And since they are just crazy — not capable of normal rationality — there is no point in trying to talk with them.
By this route we finally, inevitably, arrive at…
Mistake Number Six: The belief that we have only one option: annihilation. Or if that proves impossible, despite the military forces at our disposal, then at least containing them forever.
In fact, the presidential candidates of this moment all demand annihilation and nothing less. In Donald Trump’s words, “bomb the shit out of ‘em.” In Hillary Clinton’s more demure formulation, “crush ISIS… break the group’s momentum and then its back.” Even Bernie Sanders agrees: “Our priority must be… to destroy the brutal and barbaric ISIS regime.”
The dream of a war of annihilation against evil has a long, long history in white America. It began in 1636 when Puritans in New England wiped out the Pequot tribe, promising that such a lesson would prevent further attacks by other tribes. In fact, it created a spiral of violence and counter-violence, and a war-against-evil template that the country still follows nearly four centuries later in its “war on terror.” The current conflict in Iraq and Syria seems only to be locking us into that template and its guaranteed cycle of violence ever more firmly.
Why do we as a nation keep on playing into the same dismal scenario and committing the same mistakes? Why this seemingly irresistible urge to fight yet another war against evil?
I worry that the answer to such questions may lie in what I’ve called an American myth of national insecurity. It tells us that we will always be at war with evildoers bent on destroying us; that this war (whichever the latest one may be) is the mission and the meaning of our nation; and that the only way to feel like a real American is to enlist permanently in permanent war.
In other words, even as we stoke the Islamic State, we stoke ourselves as well. The longer we fight, the more deeply we are seized by fear. The more we fear, the more fiercely we are determined to fight. Perhaps the point is not to win the war but to remain trapped in this vicious circle, which feels perversely comforting because it offers a sense of unified national identity as nothing else can in our otherwise deeply divided nation.
National myths are, however, invented by human beings, and we are always capable of changing our minds. Who knows? Maybe someday the Islamic State will figure out that brutal killing and other acts of horror in the name of the caliphate are not such a good idea after all. And maybe the United States will figure out that depending on an eternal, self-defeating war against evil for our national identity is a huge mistake after all.
Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of the online “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at MythicAmerica.us.